A Difference of Opinion: Is stop-as-yield a good idea?
Editor’s note: We’re taking a little different approach to Charles Pelkey’s Explainer column this week, with duties shared by Charles and yours truly. I’d asked Charles previously if he would be willing to address the issue of stop-as-yield. To me, it seems a genius way of cutting out the biggest, most cancerous chunk of cycling scofflaw behavior. And I figured Charles would have some idea about the best way ordinary lazy citizens like you ‘n’ me could do a bit of cycling advocacy that might result in a law all cyclists would dig.
What I didn’t count on was he doesn’t like the idea. So he suggested we do a point/counterpoint.
You know what they say about not bringing a knife to a gun fight? Yeah, well no one talks about what happens when you show up with a pea shooter. I’m prepared to change my opinion once Charles has made his case. I’m not looking forward to that because I really like the idea of stop-as-yield. I take first at-bat.
Point: I like the idea of stop-as-yield. Why? Easy. I live in a place where our population density has risen dramatically in the last 15 years. The number of stop signs I encounter when I head out for a ride has more than doubled what it was when I moved here. The number of stop lights has risen noticeably as well. I like to think of myself as a pragmatist. There’s never going to be a scenario in which some variety of running stop lights will be acceptable. But because there are a couple of places (yeah, I think exactly two) where cyclists are allowed to treat a stop sign as a yield if no other traffic is present seems a genius idea.
Because you’re a cyclist, I really don’t need to sell you on this idea. It’s like sex. It sells itself. Not stopping saves watts (and allows you to get home with higher average speeds for that all-important Strava download). It also gets you through most intersections more quickly and given how much more often so many of my friends are hit in intersections, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to get away quickly.
The other piece of the equation that I think could be helpful is how it might—and I’m only saying might—change a certain amount of cyclist behavior. Around my home, the ticket for running a stop sign isn’t cheap, but if no one’s around I and my friends tend to give them a slow roll on early morning rides. We essentially treat them as stop-as-yield. We see our behavior as victimless crime. However, in the afternoons, when many more police are out and enforcement much higher, I make sure to stop. Tickets for running a stop light in the nearby towns are crazy expensive. The cheap ones are $371. But I see many riders run lights with the same nonchalance that they possess as they cruise through stop signs. I’d like to think that if there was a more significant delineation (not that the existing one is insufficient) between stop signs and stop lights, some riders might stop running lights, or doing that half-assed, right turn followed by a U-turn followed by another right turn. They aren’t fooling anyone.
That’s the thing: The biggest gain I see here is that by decriminalizing our most frequent infraction, maybe we’d clean up some of our other behavior. Maybe we’d seem like something other than total scoff-laws. I see loads of drivers make exasperated gestures at cyclists who run through intersections when they’ve got anything but the right-of-way. It’s clear their frustration with us paints with a large brush. In talking with non-cyclists who have seen our behavior I’ve heard many times that the conclusion they draw more often than not isn’t, “See that cyclist skirt the laws! That low-down no-good biker!” No, it’s, “Cyclists—all cyclists—suck ass.”
We’re all guilty of a single rider’s infractions. And so each driver who witnesses a rider blowing through an intersection without obeying a law decides we’re all the same and guilty of flouting traffic laws. I’ve come to a stop at many an intersection only to have some rider come up from behind me and just ride through. The other drivers present invariably look at me and wait for me to do the same thing. Their clenched teeth and glares say it all. And so I wait, extra long.
So there you have it. I believe that stop-as-yield has the ability to make our lives as cyclists easier. It is also my hope that if our towns threw us a bone with stop-as-yield, that if we responded by better obeying stop lights, our stock as respectable citizens would rise. It’s hard to chart just how this would manifest, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that drivers might be more courteous and police might show us more consideration in the event of some sort of accident. Just passing another law that gives regard to cyclists could do a lot to remind the populace that we have a real right to the road.
It seems like a great idea that just needs a million-dollar-per-municipality marketing effort and some really smart cycling advocates in order to become law.
Counterpoint: It’s those “clenched teeth and glares” that I respond to, as well, Padraig. Where we have a fundamental disagreement is what a change in the law would do to change drivers’ attitudes. I’m not sure abolishing certain regulations which scoff-laws commonly ignore is the way to engender respect for the law. I do, however, suspect that it will do a lot to piss off those who have to follow the rules, no matter what.
We can trace the roots of the idea to a law passed by the Idaho legislature in 1982 (Idaho Code: Title 49, chapter 7). Since then, similar efforts in other states have met with mixed results.
Idaho is a state much like Wyoming, where I live, and quite unlike the growing urban/suburban environs of Padraig’s home in Southern California. Nonetheless, we do have similarly laid-out streets here in Laramie, usually presenting cyclists (and motorists) with a stop sign every two blocks in low-traffic neighborhoods.
Idaho’s pioneering statute allows:
A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.
Furthermore, Idaho also allows something that makes me even less comfortable:
A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic control light shall stop before entering the intersection and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has yielded, he may proceed through the steady red light with caution. Provided however, that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn. A left-hand turn onto a one-way highway may be made on a red light after stopping and yielding to other traffic.
Yup, not only does Idaho allow stop-as-yield, it allows for red-light-as-stop-sign.
I must confess. I do often “roll through” stop signs on my way to work or on my way out of town for a long stop-sign-free ride on the open roads that are quite common here in “big empty” of the Rocky Mountain West. I am, by definition therefore, a scoff-law at times. Frankly, I like the idea of not having to stop at an empty intersection and, I have to admit, I’ll probably keep up the practice, especially on those early summer morning days, when the only car you tend to see belongs to the guy delivering the morning paper.
In my younger—and considerably cockier—racing days, I probably did more than that, riding up to intersections at full speed, quickly casting a glance left, then right, and blowing through as if mine were the only vehicle on the road. I had a few close calls and I count my lucky stars that I am still around. I was not a model cyclist. I was the cause of many a clenched jaw, icy stares and, of course, a large number of extended single digits.
My point is that I am not claiming to speak from the moral high-ground here. I was not “Captain Safety” at times, although I do try to be a responsible cyclist now that I am older and a parent. My opposition to stop-as-yield (and its more dangerous cousin “Red-light-as-stop-sign”) is based on pragmatism. I am simply concerned about the perception that cyclists try to impose a double standard, embracing the claim that we have the same rights as motorized vehicles when it is convenient and calling for separate rules when it is not.
Cycling advocates have fought long and hard for our two-wheeled brethren to be afforded the same rights as any other vehicle on a public street. While that battle is far from over, with the right to use the road comes the duty to abide by the same rules. Same rights, same responsibilities.
Surveys around the planet confirm that motorists view cyclists with, at minimum, a degree of concern and, at worst, outright hostility. Part of that is rooted in the unpredictability of some riders’ use of the road. Another part of it, is that drivers—rightly or wrongly—see cyclists as willing to ignore applicable traffic rules when those rules are inconvenient.
I avoid the use of the term “traffic laws” because Padraig and those that agree with him are taking the correct approach and hoping to modify existing law in order to accommodate that double standard. My problem is that it would remain, even after a revision in the law, a double standard.
Padraig’s idea of “a million-dollar-per-municipality marketing effort” aside, the post-modification perception of cyclists-as-scofflaws would remain. Aside from the particularly interested segment of the community—in this case, we cyclists—getting the word out to drivers would be a formidable task.
I am much more comfortable with the idea that many “reasonable” cyclists regularly glide through an empty intersection in violation of the “letter” of the law, than to have a host of less-than-reasonable cyclists hold on to what they believe the “spirit” of the law might be and habitually blow through intersections while asserting their “right” to do so.
My nightmare is the thought of herds of urban-fixie-hipster types rolling through intersections screaming “bicycle rights! Bicycle Rights!” further alienating the public and virtually erasing any progress we’ve made over the past decades. That damage would take far more than “a million-dollar-per-municipality marketing effort” to repair.
… and what about the children?
As a parent, my kids grew up calling me “the helmet Nazi,” knowing that before either of them swung a leg over a top-tube, they damn well better have a helmet on top of their heads. I furthermore demanded that they fully comply with the rules of the road, riding as far to the right as is reasonably safe and that they come to a complete stop at lights and stop signs.
I quite frankly fear for parents whose children get that mixed message that it’s sometimes OK to slide through a stop sign. The stop-as-yield requires a degree of judgment – and visual range – that may be beyond the abilities of a typical nine-year-old. So what do we do there? Is it worth incorporating an exception to the new rule for those below a given age? In an environment with bigger cars and trucks, often operated by drivers with shorter attention spans, I shudder at the thought.
Admittedly, my worst-case thinking hasn’t proven to be true in the great state of Idaho. With nearly 30 years of data now available, there hasn’t been a measurable change in the number or character of bike-related injuries or fatalities since the 1982 passage of the law. I’m not so sure we could expect the same result in a more densely populated environment like Patrick’s home in SoCal.
Finally, I have to address the “energy savings” argument Padraig and others have raised.
First, I’d always believed that the primary reason we enjoy the bike and the ride was to do just that: burn calories and use up wattage. I am not too sure that maintaining a higher average speed to download into your on-line training diary is necessarily worth even the slightest compromise in safety. Nor is it worth risking a further division between cyclists and motorists, who already see cyclists as an annoyance.
Indeed, the whole energy savings argument might actually be the basis for a similar proposal to be made on behalf of drivers. Think of the carbon savings if we allowed cars not to come to a complete stop at stop signs. Legalizing the so-called “California stop” for automobiles makes about as much sense to me as does legalizing the “Idaho stop” for cyclists. In both cases, I don’t buy it.
I am an advocate of the “Share the Damn Road” approach to cycling. With that in mind, I think we ought to “Share the Damn Duties,” too.